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United States Constitution

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Part of the series on the

U.S. Constitution

Standards of review
Other legal theories
Defining moments in law
Modalities of Constitutional Law
Issues in Constitutional Law

The United States Constitution is the second or third founding document for the United States of America, after the Declaration of Independence, and after the Articles of Confederation just didn't work out.

The Constitution is an intricately designed document, meant to preserve the liberty of the country by making sure that no one part of the government could go off and do stupid things without the consent of the rest of it. It also worked to make sure that no silly factions or parties would spring up. We're so glad that it's worked out so well.

Despite some beliefs to the contrary, the Constitution does not say that the U.S. is a Christian country, nor does it call on God in any real way. The only substantive reference to religion is a ban on religious qualifications for office. In fact, people who want to claim that the U.S. is a Christian nation are often reduced to citing the phrase "year of our Lord" appearing in the signature; but at the time this was just a reckoning of years, and did not carry the specifically Christian meaning it does today.

The writers of the Constitution were also smart enough to realize that it might not work for all time, and so put in place a means to change it if circumstances should require. This was done immediately, and thus Americans also have the Bill of Rights. While it tried very hard to do so, and managed to severely curtail many individuals' constitutional rights, the Bush administration was unable to completely shred the rest of it. The Obama administration has picked up where the Bush administration left off.

The wording of the Constitution is really vague, so it's a living document. This means that the Supreme Court makes up the rules as they go along – kind of like when your big brother taught you how to play Monopoly when you were a kid. (This forward-thinking by the founders would seem to argue against originalism as well, but many seem to think otherwise.)

The United States Constitution is a document that is freely available. If you wish to read the entirety of its text, go here.

[edit] Overview

The US Constitution has seven articles and twenty-seven amendments.


Articles: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7

Amendments: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 13 - 14 - 15 - 16 - 17 - 18 - 19 - 20 - 21 - 22 - 23 - 24 - 25 - 26 - 27

[edit] Articles of the US Constitution

[edit] Preamble

This is the part that begins, "We the People..." At the time it was drafted, "people" were wealthy, Protestant, white, male, landowners. Today it includes all people who are wealthy and Christian, irrespective of their race or gender (except transgender). Progress!

Oddly, the preamble includes the phrase "promote the general Welfare", which clearly means that the founding fathers were filthy pinko commies.

[edit] Article 1

Creates the legislative branch of the federal government, a bicameral congress with a Senate and a House of Representatives.

Notable powers: Pass laws, declare war, prosecute and try impeachments.

[edit] Article 2

Creates the executive branch. Establishes the office of the President of the United States and the qualifications for holding that office.

Notable powers: Commander in Chief of the military, can veto laws passed by Congress, make treaties with other nations (pursuant to approval by the Senate), and appoint federal judges (who have to be approved by the Senate).

[edit] Article 3

Creates Judicial Branch. Establishes the Supreme Court, defines when it has appellate or original jurisdiction, and leaves the creation of lower courts to Congress.

Notable powers: Interpret the Constitution (Justices serve for life)

[edit] Article 4

Relationships between states. Establishes that states should give "full faith and credit" to each others laws.

[edit] Article 5

Establishes procedures for amending the constitution.

[edit] Article 6

The US under the constitution inherits the debts it had under the Articles of Confederation. Also, the constitution and all Federal laws and treaties are the supreme law of the land, and no one in the government can be required to take a religious test to hold office.

[edit] Article 7

Describes how this constitution was to be ratified. (Spoiler alert: It got ratified.)

[edit] Amendments

[edit] The Bill of Rights

The first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights.

[edit] 1st Amendment

See the main article on this topic: First Amendment

Overview: Freedom of the press, religion, assembly, petition, and speech.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

[edit] 2nd Amendment

See the main article on this topic: Second Amendment

Overview: Right to bear arms and maintain a well-regulated militia.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

[edit] 3rd Amendment

See the main article on this topic: Third Amendment

Overview: Soldiers can't stay in someone's home without their permission.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

[edit] 4th Amendment

See the main article on this topic: Fourth Amendment

Overview: The police need a warrant to search your house or arrest you (more or less invalidated by the PATRIOT Act).

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

[edit] 5th Amendment

See the main article on this topic: Fifth Amendment

Overview: The government can't make people incriminate themselves. It can't take life, liberty, or property without due process of law. It can't try someone over and over again hoping for a different result. Private property can't be taken by the government without paying for it.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

[edit] 6th Amendment

Overview: Rights to; speedy trial, public trial, counsel (lawyer), and to know what exactly it is you're accused of.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

[edit] 7th Amendment

Overview: If you are sued by someone for more than $20 (which was a lot in 1791) then you have the right to a trial by jury.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

[edit] 8th Amendment

Overview: No excessive bail, no cruel or unusual punishment.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

[edit] 9th Amendment

Overview: The rights provided by the Constitution are inclusive, not exclusive; people are allowed to have other rights beside these.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

[edit] 10th Amendment

Overview: If the power wasn't given to the federal government, then either the states have that power, or the people do.

Added: Dec. 15, 1791

[edit] In-betweenies

[edit] 11th Amendment

Overview: You can't sue a state you don't live in via the federal courts. This was passed as a result of the SCOTUS case Chisholm v. Georgia. It's kinda interesting.

Added: Feb. 7, 1795

[edit] 12th Amendment

Overview: Boring crap about the Electoral College. Also responsible for all the "OBAMA/Biden" and "ROMNEY/Ryan" bumper stickers you see; prior to this amendment, the candidate with the 2nd highest number of votes for President became Vice President, and there were no "running mates."

Added: June 15, 1804

[edit] The Civil War Amendments

The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments are called the Civil War Amendments because they dealt with the aftermath of the Civil War. Generally speaking, they reaffirmed the rights of U.S. citizens (but stopped short of giving women the right to vote) and tackled some overarching questions that had been debated over the years since the Constitution's adoption.

[edit] 13th Amendment

Overview: Abolishes slavery. (The Emancipation Proclamation freed most of the slaves in the country, but it left slaves in Union states still in servitude)

Added: Dec. 6th, 1865

[edit] 14th Amendment

See the main article on this topic: Fourteenth Amendment

Overview: Defines US Citizenship and says states can't trample on your rights. (Of course, the states then went on to trample on people's rights with Jim Crow laws.) This amendment is heavily used to defend and define newly recognized rights.

Added: July 9, 1868

[edit] 15th Amendment

Overview: ANTI-anti-voting amendment and laws ostensibly gave blacks the right to vote. (But not women, who, except for Ann Coulter and Phyllis Schlafly, were livid over the exclusion.)

Added: Feb. 3, 1870

[edit] 20th- and 21st-century amendments

[edit] 16th Amendment

Overview: Eliminated Created the messes involved in by passing a Federal income tax. (Infamous for being the cause of the IRS.)

Added: Feb 3, 1913

[edit] 17th Amendment

Overview: Shifted the election of Senators from state legislators to direct elections.

Added: Apr. 8, 1913

[edit] 18th Amendment

Overview: Prohibited the sale of alcohol. The only amendment to try to take away rights – it almost tore the country apart. Infamous for giving Al Capone something to do. The US is still trying to resolve some of the mess that this caused, as it could snarkily be called the "Organized Crime Empowerment amendment".

Added: Jan. 16, 1919

[edit] 19th Amendment

Overview: Gave women the right to vote. (Finally!) Prior to this amendment's ratification, it was up to each state to decide whether or not to extend suffrage to women; most of them didn't.

Added: Aug. 18, 1920

[edit] 20th Amendment

Overview: Moved the inauguration of the President and Vice President up to Jan. 20. (It used to be in March.) This means that a president-elect only has to wait two months instead of four before the Oval Office gets vacated.

Added: Jan. 23, 1933

[edit] 21st Amendment

Overview: Repeals the 18th amendment, ending prohibition. (Finally!) Kept the proles medicated during the depression. Unfortunately, Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion due to the 16th amendment.

Added: Dec. 5, 1933

[edit] 22nd Amendment

Overview: Two-term limit for US Presidents. This had been an observed tradition established by George Washington way back at the outset, and so no-one really thought about it until FDR decided to just keep on going was pushed to the podium in his wheelchair.

Added: Feb. 27, 1951

[edit] 23rd Amendment

Overview: Gave Washington, D.C. three electors. (Finally!)[1]

Added: Mar. 29, 1961

[edit] 24th Amendment

Overview: Eliminates the poll tax. (The only tax so heinous that it had to be banned via a constitutional amendment, although by that time there were only a few states still levying it and the amount of money was far less than it had been in its heyday.)

Added: Jan. 23, 1964

[edit] 25th Amendment

Overview: Boring stuff about the line of succession for the Prez. With all the assassinations going on in the 60s, it became a topic of discussion.

Added: Feb. 10, 1967

[edit] 26th Amendment

Overview: After years of sending 18 year olds to die overseas, adults finally see fit to give them the right to vote.[2] Prior to this time it was up to the individual states to to determine voting ages, and all but 4 set it at 21; of the remaining 4, 2 had it at 20 and 2 had it at 19. 18 year olds promptly squander the opportunity.

Added: July 1, 1971.

[edit] 27th Amendment

Overview: If Congress gives itself a pay-raise, it won't go into effect until after the next election. That way, congressfolk won't necessarily be sure they will get it when they vote for it. Prevents them from lining their pockets quite so heavily.

Added: May 7, 1992. This one easily has the most entertaining story of all the amendments. The amendment was originally submitted to the States with the Bill of Rights way back in 1789. But it never reached the required number of ratifications, so it then languished for over 200 years until approved by that laggard Michigan. Most amendments have a specific time limit for ratification, but this one didn't. After Michigan ratified it, they sent it to the Chief Archivist of the United States, who reviewed it and added it to the Constitution. Some politicians were outraged and said he didn't have the right to amend the Constitution on his own. Then they went and read the rules, and found out he DID have that right. So they eventually shut up about it.

It was ratified by Kentucky when they joined the US, but people forgot about that and it wasn't recorded. So Kentucky got to sign it twice due to a clerical error.

[edit] Almost amendments

The process for ratifying a new Amendment, laid out in Article 5, is deliberately difficult. The proposed Amendment must be passed by a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress, and then ratified by at least 3/4 of the States.

Thousands of proposed Amendments have been submitted to Congress, from Amendments that would ban flag burning to Amendments that would outlaw gay marriage.

Of these, only 33 managed to obtain the required 2/3 majority in both houses.

Of these, 27 were ratified by the requisite number of States.

But what about the other 6? The ones that made it through Congress but didn't make it through the States?

That short but interesting list consists of:

  • The Congressional Apportionment Amendment: Only one of the original 12 proposed Amendments in the draft Bill of Rights submitted to the States that has never been ratified. Would have changed the way the seats in the House of Representatives were apportioned, until the total number of Representatives swelled to over 200 (like it has today), at which point it would have changed nothing.
  • The Titles of Nobility Amendment: The dreaded "missing 13th amendment" of the pseudolaw crowd. Submitted to the states in 1810, this would have revoked the citizenship of anyone who accepted a title of Nobility by a foreign power. Note that putting "Esquire" after your name does not count as a title of Nobility.
  • The Corwin Amendment: Submitted to the States in 1861, this would have made it impossible to Amend the constitution in such a way as to outlaw slavery. (Since this didn't get ratified, we got the 13th Amendment instead.)
  • The Child Labor Amendment: Submitted to the States in 1924, this would have allowed the Federal government to pass child labor laws. The 1941 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Darby Lumber Co made this amendment unnecessary.
  • The Equal Rights Amendment: Submitted to the States in 1972, with a built-in 7 (extended to 10) year time limit on its ratification. It read, in substantive part: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
  • The D.C. Voting Rights Amendment: Submitted to the States in 1978, with a built-in 7 year time limit on its ratification. Not content with the 23rd Amendment, this would have extended full representation in both houses of Congress to the residents of Washington, D.C..

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Ok, now the Finally!s are just a joke.
  2. See also P. F. Sloan's 1965 hit single "Eve of Destruction", which contains the line: "You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'," and which later reappeared on an episode of The Greatest American Hero

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